My Sense of Place: External and Internal

By DIANA HORNICK

Diana Hornick is a student and teacher in Colorado, a place she calls home.

It was another sunny day in Colorado. We get a lot of sunny days in Colorado. And on this particular sunny day, I was getting ready to go to work. Well, not work exactly. It was Saturday, and I don’t teach on Saturdays. Or so I thought. I dressed in layers and gathered up the food I purchased, along with work gloves, a water bottle, and liability waivers. In my car by 8 a.m. with no weekday commuters on the road, I drove southwest 25 miles from Denver to a park in Littleton. I was the first one from our group to arrive. I’m always early for events and always impatient when others aren’t on time. Leaning against my blue Forester, a color that seemed to blend into the bright sky above, I practiced some deep breathing exercises, seeing my breath that was once warm air in my lungs. I looked around at the oranges and reds of some woody shrubs, and yellows and browns clinging to the aspen trees. Crows and sparrows took turns singing in the distance. A bunny hopped along the dirt trail. It had been a long week, a long semester really, yet I felt a bit invigorated because I was eager to see who showed up for this event and what they would learn. My teacher brain was becoming engaged. This Saturday I would definitely be teaching.

I was spending this October morning with the Audubon Society of Greater Denver (ASGD) at Chatfield State Park so that I could lead an outdoor, off-campus, service learning event for the Animal Advocacy Club. We gathered here one by one from Arapahoe Community College (ACC) to volunteer with ASGD, learn about the flora and fauna in our backyards, and advocate for protecting local wildlife. However, as 8:30 became 9 a.m., only five other cars parked in the lot next to me, containing just one person each. Disappointment sank in. I had been planning the event for six weeks and originally signed up 15 people from ACC to engage with our conservation-minded neighbors. Despite some discouragement at 9 in the morning, by 9: 02 I would not only be back in teaching mode, I’d be learning too. I was learning about disappointment — as many teachers do — but also about my internal place known as the “self” and this external place I considered to be my local community.

We’ve all heard “think globally, act locally,” and this has been my mantra as a teacher of service learning, whether I’m teaching public speaking or advising my student club. I find it important to pass on to my adult learners that the places where they live and breathe are important because these are where we create culture, community, and commitment to those around us, including wildlife. Kathryn M. Flinn, ecologist and professor in Ohio, would have simply explained that we feel most responsible for the places where we live. The Animal Advocacy Club’s members could very easily talk about their attitudes of advocacy on campus, indoors, reclining in the Student Lounge with their laptops open and smart phones on, but could they actually change their behaviors and become environmental activists by being immersed in their local community? Could I?

I believe the answer to both questions is “yes.” In order to take responsibility for animals in our environment — either struggling or thriving — we need to understand ourselves, as well as those we’re striving to care for. Dr. Jackie Abell, psychology and identity expert from Coventry University in the U

I believe the answer to both questions is “yes.” In order to take responsibility for animals in our environment — either struggling or thriving — we need to understand ourselves, as well as those we’re striving to care for. Dr. Jackie Abell, psychology and identity expert from Coventry University in the United Kingdom, found a connection between the human-animal relationship and self-identity, which is thought to be the foundation of helping behavior. My goal as a student club advisor, teacher, and leader of this event was to actively connect the participants with their external place by thinking about their internal place. Could I do that with only five other participants when I was feeling defeated myself.

But let’s take a step back and consider why I integrated service learning into a student club activity, especially when that club has no formal grading criteria. Service learning is not simply volunteering, and it does not include paid internships. It combines learning outcomes from inside the classroom with service experiences outside the classroom, working alongside community partners. Most importantly, service learning encompasses critical self-reflection where students ponder what they learned and how that made them better, nobler citizens. I was pondering myself on how to be a better citizen of the ACC community by way of this student club. That propelled me to re-read the club’s mission statement: “educate the ACC community and beyond about animal welfare, importance, and rights…learn about the problems and solutions, raise awareness, stand up for, and protect animals…through whatever means are available to us, especially through hands-on experiences.” By converting the mission into learning outcomes, and by self-reflecting along the way, I knew I could easily connect my club to the progressive teaching and learning approach of service learning. Our hands-on approach would have us rallying for our (meaning my) external place, while reflecting along the way would cultivate our (meaning my) internal place.

At 9:30, following introductions and snacks, we began with the volunteer portion of the event. We shoveled gravel and raked leaves for two hours, helping maintain trails for the public to move safely around the Welcome Center. I have to admit that this was my favorite part of the day because being outside and physical is necessary to my psyche as a teacher who, admittedly, is indoors and stagnate most Mondays through Fridays. Taking a 30-minute nature hike to the beaver dam was the second phase of our event led by ASGD’s coordinator. She explained how these crepuscular animals use their tails in the water, answered questions about coyote scat along the trail, and pointed out a bullfrog at the lake’s edge. The last phase of our event took place back at ASGD’s main building where we were taught — during a slideshow presentation given by one of ASGD’s conservationists — how the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project would negatively affect the Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse by destroying its habitat. By 12:30, we knew more about our local animals, and I definitely wanted to advocate for them all by being more active at this specific place. I was silently planning my future.

Besides my own future, I compiled data for my club’s future events. According to my pre-event survey, the participants learned before we even set our work boots on the dry, rocky ground that morning, as they admitted that they knew “not a lot” to “very little” to “nothing” about their local wildlife. Yet, after our event ended, the participants reflected with a post-event survey, discovering that Chatfield has “over 150 species of birds” while “elk and porcupine live here,” and most importantly that “people and society need to think and find solutions to protect local wildlife.” My final piece of data was an email survey distributed one month after the event, asking how the participants changed their behaviors since our event that Saturday. I found we advocated at various levels: three went back to Chatfield with family and/or friends, two others planned to go back once the weather warmed up, another pasted a “Save Chatfield” bumper sticker onto her brand-new car, and another decided to enroll in ASGD’s Naturalist Certificate Program. That last one was me. As a teacher leading this event, I expected to change my students’ attitudes and behaviors, not mine. This service learning event brought me closer to two external places I value — ACC and ASGD. It also helped me better understand my internal place by creating culture, community, and commitment to those around me, including wildlife.

We all live in an external place, a place we call home, a place we call community. We reside in this place with other people and other animals. Sometimes we are alone in this place; sometimes we volunteer and collaborate. My internal place keeps me writing, teaching, making others aware, and being part of my external place. I continually develop my “self” so that others can develop their “selves.” Today I know that my most significant takeaway from an academic event that occurred over a year ago is how being outdoors and volunteering never feels like work for me. Cooperating with community members who want to save and protect our wildlife is really in no way work related either. No, that event on that sunny morning wasn’t work. It was inquiry at its best, imbedded in service learning, amalgamated into wildlife, with a splash of place.

References

Abell, J. (2013). Volunteering to help conserve endangered species: an identity approach to human-animal relationships. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 23(2), 157–170.

Audubon Society of Greater Denver. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.denveraudubon.org

Flinn, K. M. (2015). This is a place. Belt Magazine. Retrieved from http://beltmag.com/this-is-a-place/

Hornick, D. (2014). Photographs.

Save Chatfield State Park. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.savechatfield.org/content/

Diana Hornick is a student and teacher in Colorado, a place she calls home. As a professor of communication classes at Arapahoe Community College near Denver, she incorporates service learning assignments into her college-level courses — online and in the classroom — showing how important collaboration, community, and place are to academics. She also advises the Animal Advocacy Club in order to learn more about wildlife and conservation issues, taking that knowledge out to advocate with her students and community partners. While recently completing her graduate work with Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in conjunction with Denver Zoo, she transformed one of her course projects into this reflective essay.

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